One act at a time. (Jonathan Sacks)

News of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’ passing hit me pretty hard. I had met the man only once, yet through his teachings I felt so close to him. I’ve been reading his book, Lessons in Leadership, once a week for almost a year. I listened to many of his audio classes and interviews, especially enjoying his appearances in secular mediums, like his recent interview with Tim Ferriss.

It’s not difficult to describe why I am so attracted to Rabbi Sacks’ teachings. He was, in my opinion, a great rabbinic leader who made Torah accessible. His ability to dance between biblical sources, academic references, and business lessons was supremely attractive to my modes of thinking, learning, and perceiving the world around me. My worldview was and will continue to be heavily influenced by his work.

Source: rabbisacks.org

I hope that I can play some small part in contributing to Rabbi Sacks’ legacy, which I believe is to embody a fusion of both the Torah of the Jewish people and the wisdom of the world, in thought, speech and action.

The following is a powerful leadership quote from Rabbi Sacks’ essay on this week’s Torah portion, Ḥayei Sara, from his book, Lessons in Leadership:

“Perhaps….the most important point of [parashat Ḥayei Sara] is that large promises—a land, countless children—become real through small beginnings. Leaders begin with an envisioned future, but they also know that there is a long journey between here and there; we can only reach it one act at a time, one day at a time. There is no miraculous shortcut—and if there were, it would not help.”

This quote is apropos to so many current events in the world, as well as past and current events in my own life. And it resonates with me in an especially deep way as it connects to my current work with entrepreneurs on the theme of “growth”.

My name, Etan, in Hebrew is spelled איתן (spelled Alef – yud – tav – nun). Also, איתן was one of Abraham’s names. As I learned from Rabbi Moshe Schlass years ago on the streets of Jerusalem’s old city, the letters of my name represent the beginnings of future tense conjugations of Hebrew words:

  • א (Alef) = I will be…
  • י (Yud) = He/She will be…
  • ת (Tav) = You will be…
  • ן (Nun) = We will be…

Back to the Sacks’ quote and the theme of growth—we don’t know where tomorrow’s blessing will come from. Predictive data models based on past performance can take us only so far when it comes to estimating new revenue, customers, or other metrics we are tracking (and working to get more of) in a business.

The smartest data scientists, economists, and analysts will tell you the sameprediction isn’t perfect. With the current rise of AI, better prediction is becoming cheaper, but it’s still prediction, which is and will always be imperfect. I’m bringing up prediction here because I often see businesses fall into the trap of putting the “prediction work” (aka business intelligence, forecasting, etc.) in the category of “execution”. I believe that “prediction work” should be bucketed as “vision” (and not “execution”).

Great entrepreneurs and investors know that even the best ideas are free, and without execution they are worthless. You don’t know; you can’t know what will happen tomorrow, next month, next year, next decade, etc.

What Sacks is teaching us through the story of Abraham, is that we need both vision and day-to-day action, and further, we need to understand which is which, and which is real at any given moment. We can emphasize maintaining a strong and clear vision, putting the actual work in, embracing uncertainty and obstacles, and be ready to receive blessing whenever it comes.

A point of view spreads. (Jason Fried)

I’ve been following Jason Fried and his unconventional business wisdom for years, via his books like Rework, and Remote: Office Not Required (published 7 years before coronavirus was a thing!). I enjoyed this bit from his recent interview with Kara Swisher, where he talks about what I’ll call mission-driven business-building.

Instead of asking, “what products can we develop to generate profits”, and later trying to incorporate sustainability and mission, Fried takes the reverse approach. He and his team at Basecamp, and now their new ambitious email service Hey.com, give the impression that their values permeate who they are, what they stand for, and everything that they do as a company.

This idea also touches on the rising trend of new open-sourcing models as a distribution method.


I think [you can have a significant impact as an entrepreneur] is… about igniting a bunch of different fires. For example… [at hey.com] we’re going to open-source part of our tool. We put together a list of 40 or 50 services that track people… and are making that available on GitHub [so that] other people can add to that list.

If this feature ends up in 12 other products, wonderful.

We don’t have to dominate the world to have this [feature] spread. [It’s] the same thing with ideas.

As a small company we [at Basecamp] have had a very big impact on the industry. We’re a small company, but we have ideas and a point of view, and that spreads. And other people then pick up that point of view and maybe some adopt it, maybe some change it, maybe some reject it. But it gets spread, and it gets spread in other areas. And then those things happen.

It’s like seeds blowing in the wind… it’s not about one seed. You’ve got to seed ideas. And then the world will go with what is better.

But you have to provide an alternative to [products seeking global domination.

And if our impact is [only] 100,000 customers who are paying us for Hey, or 50,000 businesses that pay us for Hey… but it shines a spotlight on the ideas that have, the concepts that we have, and the point of view that we have… and other things sprout up because of that… that’s how you really change things versus going out and trying to dominate the world.

Competence + Confidence [Personal Theme]

I shared in the Growth Mentor mentee community yesterday:

YOU GOT THIS.

And I don’t mean that as some kind of trope.

What I mean is the following:

All of the top performers, ever, made mistakes. There’s that famous Wayne Gretsky quote about missing 100 percent of the shots you never take. Michael Jordan missed a lot of shots and the opportunity to win many games for the Bulls. One of the reasons Jordan is known for making so many buzzer beaters (25 game winning shots) is because he tried. Jordan missed a lot of shots, too (He was 9-18 in the final 24 seconds and 5-11 in the final 10 seconds). Yes, he had an amazing record, but imperfect, and mortal like all of us.

I think one of the necessary ingredients in winning is just trusting yourself. You got this.

I come up with these 2-word themes every couple of months, that serve me as kind of a theme for everything I do professionally. I write these on a piece of paper that I tape to my fridge, for the constant reminder (I work from home as many of us do these days). Throughout the summer it my theme was “Focus + Courage”. That had a lot to do with career uncertainty and just figuring out “what game” I was playing (more on that, and Jordan, on my blog here).

Now I feel like I’m in a place where I have clarity on what the personal flywheel I’m building, and what I need to do (happy to elaborate about my own flywheel and what I’m building, but this isn’t about me; it’s about you). I’m happy to share my new theme with you, which I just put up on my fridge this week. And that is “Competence + Confidence”. And I think that’s relevant to Growth Mentor for obvious reasons.

Pace is of the essence. (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks)

The following story is told by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his book Lessons In Leadership:

When Margaret Thatcher was prime minister, she knew she was going to have to confront the miners’ union in a long a bitter struggle. In 1981 they went on to strike for a pay rise. Mrs. Thatcher immediately made enquiries about the size of coal stocks. She wanted to know how long the country could survive without new supplies of coal. As soon as she discovered that stocks were low, she in effect conceded victory to the miners. She then, very quietly, arranged for coal to be stockpiled. The result was that when the miners went on strike again in 1983, she resisted their demands. There was a prolonged strike, and this time it was the miners who conceded defeat. A battle she could not win in 1981 she was able to win in 1983.

Let them outclimb you.

Four years ago, when my son Yitzy was approaching the ripe infant age of two, I was basking in pride on a particular day because of what I thought to be a shared father-son accomplishment, and wrote about teaching him how to climb. Yesterday, continuing on that theme, I received a valuable leadership lesson from Yitzy, which is how to get out the way when your kids know how to outclimb you.

Yitzy is now five. And he’s scaling trees and rocks like a wild monkey! Back when he was two, I remember taking full control, and full credit… as if all of his future climbing accomplishments could be linked back to me. Ha! How wrong I was. This time around, it was Yitzy doing all the work, and me trying not to get in the way of his courage and fearlessness as he went higher and higher.


 

As we took a break from the walking trail to do a bit of climbing, my yitzy_tree_climbing_resizedinitial posture was to root for Yitzy to continue going as high as possible up the rocks and trees, building on my endless pride for him. But it only took a few moments into this activity for me to realize that this was not the climbing of the safety-certified playgrounds that I was used to. And more importantly, I realized that my son’s risk tolerance was entirely different than my own. 

In those moments I felt an unique emotion which every parent must feel many times, as does perhaps every business manager or leader. That is, I felt I was at a decision point of how exactly I wanted to balance ‘control’ and ‘letting go’.

The feeling that I needed to control every one of Yitzy’s steps up the rocks was a risk-averse emotion on my part, scanning every possible misstep and mentally plotting a potential corrective course. As he went higher and higher, my mind raced faster and faster, watching him climb up from “potential boo boo zone” to “possible broken bones territory” to “that’s super high and this could turn out really, really, bad.” I am not going to lie — I was freaking out.

Thankfully, I caught my anxiety and immediately did my best to temper it with intellect. Just because I was scared, it doesn’t mean that Yitzy was scared. And just because I deemed this activity to be dangerous, it doesn’t mean that it was objectively dangerous. I begged myself to try and mentally let go.

Sensing that I reached a point of clarity, I realized that in this climbing lesson, I was not the teacher at all but the student. My five-year old was ready to reach for the clouds, and as his father I had a unique role. Yitzy would surely pick up on any vocalization or intimation of my own fear, so I mostly just kept my mouth shut, spotted him at times in case he did actually fall, and made sure that I was internalizing all of the courage and ambition he was teaching me in those moments.


I love the story of the 7-yr-old Menachem Mendel Schneerson (later to become the Lubavitcher Rebbe) climbing a pole higher than any of the other kids because unlike the others, he focused only on looking up. And when we took a short lunch break on the trail yesterday, I told this inspiring story to my Yitzy. He loved it.

But inside I knew that I had learned something else… something deeper perhaps… which is a lesson of trust. And it’s a lesson that as a father and a leader, I need to let others shine bright in ways that I might not be able to, or even understand. I need to be proactive not only in passing on positive traits, but also cautious to try and withhold negative traits. I need to curb my need to control and delegate, and try to find relevance in guiding, teaching, and supporting. I need to let others outclimb me. 

See people as people.

“[People should be seen as more than just instruments or obstacles.]”

Stewart Butterfield, Cofounder and CEO of Slack

“The real fundamental challenge of leadership is the same as the fundamental challenge of just being a human being, and that’s just living with an open heart… and not seeing people as just instruments on one hand, that can be used to your advantage, or obstacles that are in the way of what you’re trying to do.”

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